OPINION: Rugby season is almost here.
In Taranaki, the big talking point is the new alignment with the Chiefs franchise after having been part of the Hurricanes since Super Rugby began in 1996.
In the early days, being an ardent supporter of the Wellington-based team was what everyone did, as Taranaki players were placed in that franchise alone.
There were seldom enough players selected to satisfy the local pundits, the Hurricanes were our team and just occasionally we could watch a game at Yarrow Stadium.
There were only 12 teams, they played each other once, and life was simple. In no time at all the mantra of "quality not quantity" was kicked in to touch as "more games, more teams and more money" became the catch cry.
Professionalism, once the term relating to how a player conducted himself and the effort he displayed on the field, soon became how much money could be earned and how the franchises could manipulate their organisation to gather in as much coin as possible.
In the meantime, players became very much their own business, and the loyalty to a particular franchise was no more. Taranaki players, rightfully so, were spread amongst the five New Zealand franchises wherever they could get the best deal or any deal at all.
And so it became that following a favourite player was just as common as following a team.
Deep down, most Taranaki fans were still Hurricanes supporters, although with few or no games in New Plymouth, as well as being part of a franchise that offered little incentive to its country cousins, people lost the passion. They didn't really care.
Then along came the Chiefs. Will this leap in to the unknown be a winner for the Taranaki union and its public?
It certainly appears to have created a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the north of the province.
Maybe in Beauden Barrett country - around the coast - and in the south, the feeling may be different, but certainly the Chiefs recent visit has created a positivity and a jersey buying spree amongst the younger brigade.
Last week the Chiefs plonked themselves down in Russ Tate's academy bunk beds at Tikorangi with their sleeping bags. I can only imagine the fun and hilarity that went on as they ate in the clubrooms, trained locally, visited a few of the towns.
They also welcomed locals who turned up at a hangi organised by Mark Cooper, while Rhys Marshall even had a few team mates shearing on Dad's farm right next door.
The players and staff were friendly and helpful. The image created was one of being a great group of people. The training sessions were open and if coaches were able to get close enough they could understand why this group of players, no better on paper than most other franchises, were able to take out the last two titles.
Coaching is a vital cog in their success.
With two Super Rugby games promised each year for the next five years, the Taranaki public can feel like they are being treated as an equal partner in the franchise.
However, it is much too early to make a judgment call.
In the early days, the Hurricanes came to New Plymouth to train one year and their development team have even played at Tikorangi. Then they forgot.
Let's hope then that the Chiefs are far more committed because we still do love our footy in Taranaki.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- Taranaki Daily News
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?